New process to bring features to large-screen format

In a potentially watershed announcement portending major benefits to all involved, brass from Universal, Imagine Entertainment and Imax have skedded a glitzy press event for Thursday to announce the summer re-release of “Apollo 13″ in Imax’s large-screen format.

A similar venture involving U/Imagine’s upcoming “Cat in the Hat” is also anticipated. Tom Hanks, who starred in 1995 space drama “Apollo,” is expected to attend the Universal CityWalk event, but it wasn’t clear if attached “Cat” topliner Mike Myers will be on hand.

Film execs have been working on the Imax project for months and were recently blown away by a screening of a new process for converting films to Imax specs, insiders said. Process reps a first-time ability to convert a conventional live-action print to Imax’s large format.

Previously, films including Warner Bros.’ “The Matrix,” U’s “Jurassic Park III” and DreamWorks’ “Gladiator” have been shown in a few Imax theaters. But those limited large-screen runs involved simply blowing up images projected from a conventional 35 mm negative.

New process is said to yield much more compelling results by converting conventional negatives to a 70 mm Imax format, which offers vastly enhanced resolution. An Imax neg is both twice as wide and almost four times as long as a conventional one.

There are also anticipated dramatic benefits for the bottom lines of those involved.

For U and Imagine, the ability to distrib conventionally lensed pics on Imax screens reps a welcome opportunity to repurpose older films like “Apollo” at a time when re-releases are something of a Hollywood trend. “The Exorcist” grossed more than $100 million worldwide re-release for Warner Bros. a couple years ago, and U hopes to do similar biz when it unspools a 20th anniversary edition of “E.T.” on Friday.

The new Imax-conversion process also presents a new way of adding to the aggregate number of screens on new releases and simultaneously broadening both pic appeal and revenue.

For large-screen pioneer Imax, the benefits could be even greater.

The Toronto-based company has struggled in recent years to follow through on a pledge to Imax exhibs that more dramatically appealing films would soon be available in the large-screen format. But to date that’s mostly meant adding only Disney toons to the usual nature studies and scientific subjects, as technical aspects of the conversion process for animation are less daunting than for live-action films.

The announcement of a major live actioner unspooling in the format would underscore the appeal of the conversion process, as well as restore exhibs hope of eventually seeing a regular flow of mainstream movies. And that could help Imax’s long languishing stock price.

“There’s been talk of a new conversion process (and) that would be very significant,” said Kevin Skislock, an analyst with Irvine-based Laguna Research Partners who follows Imax. “There’s been a question about how you can ask exhibitors to put up more Imax screens when there’s an inadequate flow of product. Now, they may be able to tap into some instant product flow, and you could see a resurgence of new Imax theaters.”

Proprietary tech

It’s believed the large-screen conversion process will cost studios about $2 million-$3 million per pic plus additional print costs. Process is proprietary to Imax, so though the technology could be used to convert conventional negs to any of a number of large-screen formats, it won’t be.

Imax likely would authorize its use only for distribution to the 225 Imax-format theaters located in 30 countries worldwide. Those include about 100 U.S. installations.

An exact date for the Imax-format “Apollo” re-release wasn’t immediately available, but signs point to a late-summer bow.

U execs such as Ron Meyer and Stacey Snider are expected to be on hand for Thursday’s press event, set for the Loews Cineplex megaplex in Universal City. Imagine toppers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard are also anticipated, along with Imax co-CEOs Brad Wechsler and Rich Gelfond.

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